Shelter dogs appear ‘less stressed’ when paired with a buddy

Dogs housed with a suitable kennel mate are also adopted quicker, according to one new study.
Laura Baisas Avatar
two dogs cuddle together in a bed in an animal shelter
Mighty (in front) and Bo cuddle during a study of the benefits of housing dogs together in animal shelters. The pair proved to be loving companions and chose to sleep together–even though a separate bed was provided. Photo courtesy of Erica Feuerbacher

For shelter dogs, awaiting adoption can be inherently stressful. Roughly 4.1 million dogs enter animal shelters in the United States every single year. One stress-reduction remedy that could help shelter pups comes with a little help from a (furry) friend. Shelter dogs awaiting adoption with a canine companion tend to do better than ones who are alone. A study published June 12 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, found that dogs kept together with companions showed fewer signs of stress and were even adopted more quickly.

“Despite being a social species, dogs are often housed alone in shelters to reduce disease transmission and possible injury from inter-dog conflict. But this social isolation can work against dogs’ behavioral health and adoptability,” study co-author and Virginia Tech University animal behavior psychologist Erica Feuerbacher said in a statement. “We wanted to examine whether pair housing could be a useful intervention for improving shelter dogs’ welfare.”

[Related: Do dogs dream? The answer might make you appreciate your pup even more.]

Earlier studies on the benefits of co-housing dogs focused on laboratory beagles and dogs housed long-term (more than six months) in kennels at veterinary schools. By comparison, shelter dogs spend an average of 35 days waiting to be adopted and are frequently accustomed to social interaction before entering the shelter.

“Dogs housed in shelters can face chronic levels of stress due to noise, confined kennel spaces, and limited access to social interaction,” Feuerbacher said. “This can reduce their overall well-being, which might impact their adoptability.”

This new study followed 61 dogs over seven days at the Humane Society of Western Montana. The team placed half of the dogs in cohousing with partners who were put together after a compatibility test and brief introduction. The other half were kenneled solo.

They observed the dogs over a week, recording common stress behaviors. These include lip-licking, whining, and pulling back their ears. The team also took daily samples of the dogs’ urinary cortisol and creatinine to measure for biological indicators of stress.

The dogs that were housed with a buddy showed fewer stress behaviors. They were also adopted four days sooner than the single-housed dogs on average. Other animals, including stressed rattlesnakes also tend to fare better when they are housed with companions. 

[Related: Why dogs usually can’t tell what you’re pointing at.]

This study’s results could help encourage animal shelters to try to match dogs with suitable kennel-mates as a way to lower their stress and help them put their best paw forward to potential adopters

“Many potential adopters might already have a dog or would like to engage in social activities with their dog,” Feuerbacher said. “Clearly exhibiting that a dog can successfully interact with other dogs might highlight those dogs as good matches–leading to more successful adoptions.”